A Trickier Dick
Novelist Mark Maxwell imagines an unlikely meeting of minds.
By Ted Kleine
More has been written about Richard M. Nixon than almost any character in American history. But in his first novel, Evanston writer Mark Maxwell takes us to Nixonian sites no author has explored: into the president's pants and up his mother's butt.
Before Maxwell's nixoncarver--a fantasia revolving around a meeting between Nixon and writer Raymond Carver--nobody had ever wondered what would have happened if young Dick's stern Quaker father had caught him dressed in his mother's clothes masturbating atop the family tractor. Nobody had ever imagined that as an infant Nixon dreamed "of bluebirds fluttering out of his mother's asshole."
Maxwell says he chose to look so squirmingly close at Nixon's youthful psyche because "it's the one thing we don't know much about. We know the political life of Nixon. I wanted to delve into the Nixon that was hidden from the naked eye, to find out what made him the politician he became. One of the things I read in a psychoanalysis of Nixon was that the author believed he was anally fixated and had never been able to go beyond that stage."
No one ever wrote a psychoanalysis of Raymond Carver, so he's the flatter of the two characters. Carver, known for his spare, deadpan prose style, is portrayed as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, blue-collar guy trying to support a young family and tap out short stories and poems in the garage. Maxwell, 32, was attracted to Carver's work because he saw parallels to his own life. Maxwell married when he was 23; to support his young family, he taught high school English during the day and poured drinks in a bar at night. Carver married his pregnant girlfriend straight out of high school and worked in a morgue. "There's a lot of relationship struggle in his family," Maxwell says of Carver, "and there was that issue--how do you write in the chaos of everyday life, find the emotional and physical space? He had two kids when he was 19, so I figured if he could do it I could do it."
When Nixon and Carver meet in the book, they don't have a lot to say to each other. With an unnamed narrator tagging along to record their summit, they fish, play poker, and go to a minor-league baseball game. A profane Nixon raves about the perfect blow job ("totally toothless...all tongue and lips and suction, and a one gulp swallow when it's over") while a taciturn Carver listens and makes comments like "Fine day, isn't it?" and "How's the wife?" Other president-author pairings might be more interesting--Lyndon Johnson and John Steinbeck, for example, two big, homely guys who really did pal around together--but Maxwell sees Carver as a perfect confessor for Nixon.
"They both have great sins," he says. "Nixon has great public sins, and Carver has great private sins." Lowering his voice into a Nixon impersonation, Maxwell explains, "'You know, Ray, I hired some burglars and broke into the Watergate Hotel.' And Carver would say, 'So what? I was a drunk. I cheated on my wife. I abandoned my baby.'"
Carver spent a lot of time in bars. So did Maxwell. For 17 months, while he was working on nixoncarver and teaching at Wheeling High School, Maxwell tended bar part-time at the Ubaa, a tavern two blocks from his home. Arriving at the Ubaa today, Maxwell carries two books under his arm: a copy of nixoncarver and a palm-size album containing snapshots of his son, Charlie, who was born on April 10, exactly six weeks after Saint Martin's Press published the novel. Most of Maxwell's friends here are more interested in the baby pictures than in nixoncarver.
"He's gorgeous," bubbles Audrey, the owner, as she admires a photo of Charlie and his big sister, Emma.
Audrey hasn't read nixoncarver yet, but that's OK with Maxwell. Carver also spent most of his life around people who wouldn't read his books. "This bar is mostly blue-collar workers," Maxwell says. "You have carpenters and plumbers and real people." He doesn't romanticize the bar. "I think mostly what you get from this place is a desire not to be here permanently. You're so filled with longing not to be here that you write longer and harder."
If Maxwell's old customers ever did pick up nixoncarver, they might ask him, "What made you write a book about Raymond Carver and Richard Nixon meeting on a beach and going fishing together?"
The idea, Maxwell says, came gradually. Back in 1994, he was working toward an MFA in creative writing through Vermont College. As an exercise, he began composing short stories based on Carver's poems. Then, in August of that year, Nixon died. After watching the funeral on TV, Maxwell began reading biographies of the ex-president. Soon he was writing short Nixon scenes to go along with his Carver pieces.
"One day I was writing a scene in which Raymond Carver was getting a haircut from his wife, and in the scene I had newspapers on the floor," he says. "I wanted a concrete detail, so I looked at the newspaper laying on my desk, which ironically was the Chicago Reader, and the headline on the paper was 'Nixon in Hell.' So that was the first time they appeared together in the same scene." Shortly thereafter, Maxwell read a poem of Carver's in which William Carlos Williams goes fishing with Ernest Hemingway. "That's when the great 'what if?' happened."
Though his original inspiration was Carver, Maxwell's book is mostly Nixon. In nixoncarver, the former president's childhood is not only filled with sexual and scatological fantasies; it's also infected by loathing for his father and a morbid fear of tuberculosis, the disease that killed two of his brothers.
Nixon himself acknowledged that his bitter drive for success was born in the social humiliations of his early years. In one vignette, which Maxwell says is based on a real incident, Nixon is set up on a blind date by the captain of the Whittier High football squad. Nixon goes to the girl's house with flowers, but she has no idea who he is. No matter how much you may have hated Nixon, you can't help but feel sympathy for him as he stands alone on the porch, sweating and humiliated.
"Dick's adolescent self, with all its insecurities and fears and hate, curled up in a quivering fetal ball somewhere down inside the little toe on his left foot--not dormant, just hiding, full of resentment, waiting for revenge," Maxwell writes, finding in this prank the germ of Nixon's later crimes. "In the years that would follow this moment, Nixon would weigh every major crisis he encountered next to this one. None would compare."
Nixon was both the most popular and the most hated politician in U.S. history. Along with Lyndon Johnson, he was one of only two men to hold the grand slam of Washington offices: congressman, senator, vice president, and president. No American politician has ever had more votes cast in his name. Yet he spent the last 20 years of his life reviled as a criminal by the people who put him in office.
"I've always been fascinated by Nixon," Maxwell says. "He was the tragicomic figure of our era. He was the first president I remember. I remember vividly watching the resignation on TV, and I remember things like Steve Martin's Let's Get Small album, where he imagines Nixon combing the beach with his metal detector and his Bermuda shorts. What I was trying to do was make him seem a very human figure, not just this mythological figure we all hate. He was just someone who wanted to be liked." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.